On the Fourth of July, 1937, a group of Americans gathered in the town of Yaphank, Long Island, to celebrate the country’s birthday. Many of the traditional elements of Americana were present, including picnic baskets, beer, and the inevitable fireworks. Yet there were some unusual elements as well. Some of those in attendance were in uniform, but not the uniform of the U.S. Army. More than 300 men in silver-gray shirts with black ties and Sam Browne belts that passed over their right shoulders, and others in black shirts, goose-stepped past the stage and saluted their leaders with extended right arms. A huge swastika adorned the stage next to the American flag. The usual patriotic speeches focused not only on the United States, but also several of its soon-to-be-enemies. Cries of “Heil Hitler!” and “Heil Mussolini!” filled the summer air.
This was the Fourth of July celebrated in the style of the German American Bund, once the country’s leading organization for German sympathizers and Nazi imitators. Though nearly forgotten today, the Bund once boasted a nation-wide membership in the thousands and had chapters in nearly every major American city. Millions more saw newsreel footage of goose-stepping Bund members mimicking Hitler’s stormtroopers or read newspaper exposés about the Bund’s secret training camps for children and adults alike. In Washington, politicians and law enforcement officials wondered what the Bund’s leaders might be plotting.
Yet despite its undeniable popularity for some Americans, and the public outcry it generated, the Bund never came close to fulfilling the ambitions of its leaders. In part, this was thanks to the courageous infiltration of the group by an enterprising Chicago journalist who risked life and limb to expose what the Bund was up to. His name was John C. Metcalfe, and we’ll return to his story in a moment.
The German American Bund was founded in 1936 and led by a German immigrant—and naturalized American citizen—named Fritz Kuhn. In theory, the Bund was merely an organization of German Americans who wanted to stay in touch with their former homeland. In reality, the Bund had been created from the remains of an organization called Friends of the New Germany that had openly supported Adolf Hitler and his plans for the Third Reich. That organization was shut down when the German government decided it was too disreputable and might endanger Germany’s relations with the U.S. The Bund was therefore supposed to be a more respectable way for German Americans to stay in touch with their former country—but also show support for its new leader, Hitler.
In reality, the Bund’s ideology was more closely aligned with the Reich than its leaders wanted to admit. Fritz Kuhn himself was a World War I veteran who had won the Iron Cross. After the war he joined the Nazi Party and brawled with Communists on the streets of Munich. He later claimed to have been present for the failed Beer Hall Putsch that landed Hitler in prison. In 1923 he moved to Mexico and later settled in Detroit, where he worked for the Ford Motor Company. According to one account, he was fired from the job when management discovered him practicing political speeches while on the clock. (Relevant aside: Stay tuned to episode 4 of this miniseries to learn about Henry Ford and his obsession with Nazism.)
In 1936, Kuhn was working as the Midwestern leader of the Friends of the New Germany, and when that organization rebranded itself as the Bund he was appointed national leader. In some ways, Kuhn seemed like a good choice. He was a decent public speaker, though his attempts to emulate Hitler through erratic arm movements and gestures was often over-the-top. He wore glasses, giving him the vague air of a scholar. His Bund uniform—designed by himself—included his Iron Cross. After moving to New York to take over the Bund’s national headquarters, Kuhn was pictured in the press going to nightclubs with a succession of beautiful women, including a former Miss America. Everything he did was great fodder for the press.
All this made Kuhn exceptionally dangerous, too. At Bund events, he insisted on placing swastikas next to the American flag in a clear attempt to equate the two. All the standard imagery of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy—goose-stepping troops in jackboots, straight-armed salutes—were now being associated with Americanism. All members of the Bund had to be of Aryan descent and state that they had no Jewish ancestry.
The Bund’s slogan was “Free America,” by which it meant an America free from Jewish influence. Kuhn’s strategy was to combine the essence of Americanism with a new and insidious version of National Socialism. It’s difficult to know how many members the Bund had at any given time, but Kuhn once estimated that national membership was around 20,000 with about 100,000 sympathizers who attended periodic events and generally agreed with the group. This doesn’t seem like a huge membership in a country of more than 150 million at the time, but it’s worth remembering that just 12 years before taking power, the German National Socialist Party only had 2,000 members. A year later, it had 10 times that number. Who was to say that Kuhn could not pull off a similar feat in the U.S.?